With a spate of openings, roadside hospitality is on the path to revival. Here's how operators are accelerating where their predecessors broke down
In the late 1980s a strange advert began to air on British television. A man driving a car is accosted by a line of smiling cartoon chefs offering him an Early Starter breakfast or a steak platter, before he is transported to a restaurant for a plate of Jubilee pancakes with a cube of ice-cream. Over his surprised reaction a voiceover chimes in: "Once you've sampled their delicious cooking, you'll find a Little Chef is…unsurpassable."
The advert feels like a window into a different age. Little Chef was launched in 1958 and at its peak had 439 UK restaurants. There weren't many long-distance journeys you could take without coming across its cheerful ‘Fat Charlie' mascot. The Olympic breakfast, red and white seating and free lollipops with the bill came to define the British roadside dining experience for decades.
A lack of investment and several changes of ownership eventually doomed the brand. Even Heston Blumenthal couldn't save it, despite trying to slim down Charlie by adding coq au vin and strawberry granola to the menu for a Channel 4 programme in 2009. His changes were thrown out in 2013 and Little Chef finally disappeared from the roadside in 2018.
The winding down of Little Chef seemed to coincide with a decline in the British roadside experience. The cherry pancakes and free lollies gave way to sad sandwiches, a WH Smith and a queue for the loo. Rather than a place to sit down for a meal, service stations became somewhere to get in and out of as quickly as possible.
But times are changing. The growing use of electric vehicles (EV) – and the need to charge them – a rise in staycations and dwindling fortunes on the high street mean many hospitality operators now see the roadside as a major opportunity.
A fork in the road
Moto, the UK's largest motorway services operator, welcomes 55 million cars a year and caters to around 120 million customers annually. Last year, traffic on motorways returned to 95% of 2019 levels and the number of cars visiting its sites is up on pre-pandemic levels.
Ken McMeikan, chief executive of Moto, describes the rise in EV charging as a "once in a generation event" that will fundamentally change roadside hospitality and how people travel. The sale of new petrol and diesel cars in the UK will be banned from 2030 and the number of EVs on the road is estimated to be around 700,000 and rising. In 2025 Moto expects one in 10 cars visiting its services to be an EV and this will rise to one in three by 2030.
"The growth opportunity is huge. EV drivers will turn into motorway service areas 50% more than a diesel or unleaded [petrol] drivers and will dwell for 35% longer to chrge their cars, so there is the opportunity to sell more," he says.
This increase in higher-spending customers has seen Moto "inundated" with requests from hospitality brands wanting to open in its sites. "Some are new to the UK, some are growing nationally and want brand recognition," says McMeikan. "During the pandemic we saw a huge increase in interest, but we've always had brands who are desperate to get access to 120 million customers over the course of a year."
Moto runs Burger King, Costa, Greggs and Chow Asian Kitchen under franchise across its sites and is rolling out Pret A Manger and KFC to more locations this year. It has space for more food traders and is investing millions into finding new brands, upgrading restaurants with self-order kiosks, and expanding its EV charging capabilities to cater to rising demand.
"One of the top reasons people stop at a services is for food and drink. That's a physiological need that's not going to change," says McMeikan.
The rise in demand for roadside hospitality has seen the launch of new brands hoping to capture a piece of the growing market. Alex Reilley, co-founder and chief executive of restaurant group Loungers, is aiming to tap into a sense of nostalgia with the opening of roadside dining brand Brightside.
"We're hoping to put a little more fun and romance back into roadside travel," he says. "My first exposure to hospitality as a kid was through Little Chef, when we used to travel from Leicester to see my grandmother in Suffolk every month. The highlight of the weekend was stopping in Little Chef for tea. There was a sense of excitement. I feel that hasn't been extinguished just because people are looking for more convenience."
Brightside opened its first restaurant on the A38, near Exeter in Devon, on 10 February in a building which formerly housed a Little Chef. With its avocado toilet suites, brown and orange striped seating and wood panelled walls, the design is meant to evoke the glory days of British roadside travel.
"When we first started talking about Brightside, the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s felt like the right era [to base it around]. Since then, the 1980s have become quite cool – all the kids are watching Stranger Things. We're hopeful that people of a certain age will come in and have a hit of nostalgia and the younger generation will think it's a cool place to hang out."
Despite the nods to the past, Reilley is clear that roadside dining needs to evolve. He admits Little Chef "lost its way" but he always saw its potential and even suggested Loungers' private equity backers buy the brand in 2015. "I think they thought I was joking," he laughs. "But their sites were horrifically under-invested in and they didn't evolve their food."
Brightside's menu of comfort food reflects a change in Britain's tastes. A traditional English breakfast (from £8.95) and burgers (from £10.95) sit alongside chicken katsu curry (£13.95) and a vegan pizza (£12.95), while ham, egg and chips has been upgraded with treacle-cured pork belly and waffle fries (£14.95).
A further two Brightside restaurants are due to open on the A303 near Honiton and the A38 near Saltash this year on the well-trodden route of families driving to Devon and Cornwall for their holidays. A fourth venue has been signed on at the Ram Jam Services development in Rutland, which is expected to see more than 41,000 cars pass by daily.
Reilley admits the company is "taking a bit of a bet" on the brand, but hopes that incorporating EV charging points will be a draw for drivers.
"As EV charging becomes a more important part of the road network people are going to have to stop. They'll plan their journeys around it and hopefully Brightside will become a treat and part of the holiday. It's phenomenal when you look at how many cars are recorded using roads on a daily basis – it's a lot of people."
Another newer operator hoping to capture the growing roadside market is Mollie's, the motel and diner brand created by Soho House founder Nick Jones. The first site opened on the A420 in Oxfordshire in 2019 followed by a location off the M5 near Bristol in 2021 and a city centre version will launch in the Old Granada Studios building in Manchester at the end of this year.
With its neon signage, retro leather seats and menu of burgers and milkshakes, Mollie's is based on a typical American diner rather than a British equivalent. The interiors have been created by Soho House's design team, and managing director Darren Sweetland describes the sites as "like sitting in the front seat of an old Cadillac".
"We've got really high hopes that it will become somebody's favourite stop off. Mollie's has the opportunity to forge a new type of travel," he says.
Mollie's is also banking on customers wanting to stop for longer and is in talks to double the number of EV chargers on its forecourts. Its sites are designed as a ‘home away from home', with lounge spaces featuring sofas, cocktails, music, high-speed WiFi and bottomless coffee.
The diner menu offers crowd-pleasing dishes such as a cheeseburger (£9.50) and banoffee pie (£7) as well as a Caesar salad (£8) and a vegan banana bread (£7), from 7am until 10pm. Overnight stays are designed to be affordable and start from £70 a night, with a range of double, twin or bunk bedrooms. Each room includes velvet armchairs, rain showers and sound-insulated windows. Guests can use the Mollie's app as a room key, to check-in, order food and to sync with the EV chargers. The brand won a Catey for the Best Use of Technology in 2022 and Sweetland hopes it can pose a challenge to both traditional roadside operators as well as the wider budget hotel sector.
"We've got the potential to push a real different type of travel and the traditional experiences of a budget stay. We really can aim high. If you think how large that sector is there's a huge opportunity," he says.
Long-term, McMeikan predicts there will be "explosive growth" in roadside offerings due to the increase in electric cars on the road and an expected 50% rise in people stopping to use motorway service areas. Both Mollie's and Brightside are ambitious about their expansion plans, which could see the number of roadside diners in the UK dramatically increase.
Sweetland hopes Mollie's could reach 10-15 sites within three to five years, both within major cities and in nearby roadside locations and believes there is scope to scale further. The brand is actively seeking sites and has its eye on rolling out to Europe in the long-term.
Reilley refuses to put a number on Brightside's potential, but hints he is aiming high. Could this herald the permanent revival of the roadside diner in the UK?
"What we take comfort from is that Little Chef had 439 restaurants at its peak," says Reilley. "Even if you shave some off that's a lot of opportunity. At the moment we're a very small fish in a big pond.
"There's a sense that we're at the start of a journey with this, and that's quite exciting."
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